NORTH BILLERICA — It’s a universal term of endearment for a young player — particularly a freshman — who is good enough to make, and play for, his or her high school varsity team.
Technically, Tristan Bradley still qualifies. The ninth grade goaltender for Swampscott High is soft spoken, deferential to his older teammates and stands all of 5-foot-9 and about 140 pounds.
But during the biggest win in program history last night, the puppy became a Big Dog.
The Big Blue are off to their first-ever Division 3 North title game after scoring three times in the final 121 seconds last night to upset their arch rivals from Marblehead, 4-1, at the Chelmsford Forum — and Bradley was a huge reason why.
It wasn’t just that he stopped 24 shots; it was both how and when he stopped them. It was standing tall in the face of constant pressure, with players 60, 70 or even 80 pounds heavier than he crashing his net, hungry for the rebounds that never came. It was keeping his team within striking distance when the rival Headers dictated play for much of the first two periods, both in terms of puck possession and physicality. It was Bradley seemingly impervious to the pressure that surrounded him, simply doing what he’s done since he first strapped on the pads at just 3 years old.
“I’ve never played in a game this big in my life ... so yeah, I’m feeling pretty good,” said the 15-year old Bradley. “I felt like I was in a zone from the first period on.”
Gino Faia, the former Swampscott High player who has not only guided his team to the most wins in school history (17) but also two games away from playing for a state title, may have had the understatement of the season when he said Bradley didn’t play like the freshman he actually is. Stepping up his play in practice the last few weeks (”Tristan’s been on fire lately,” said Faia) has only helped his confidence in the actual games.
Having seen what the Headers were capable of close-up during the regular season — he played the third period of a 6-3 loss three days before Christmas, and went the distance in a 5-0 shutout loss six-and-a-half weeks later — Bradley knew what to expect last night. Shots coming from every angle, at any time. Pressure that could come in massive waves. An opponent that played with confidence, swagger and knew how to score in pressure situations.
Bradley didn’t give an inch.
“He has a lot of composure and great reflexes. And Tristan just doesn’t make many mistakes,” said 18-year-old Chris Carman, one of Swampscott’s four defensemen — all of whom are seniors — that patrol the area in front of Bradley. “We knew from watching him last season as an eighth grader he’d be good, and he blended into the team really well. He’s gotten more and more confident as the year has gone on.”
“Tristan didn’t let the crowd get into his head,” said three-zone force Trevor Massey, who, like Carman, is a senior captain and defenseman. “He put the team on his back.”
From the onset, Bradley was on his game. He turned aside a couple of point-blank chances from Marblehead captain Ian Maag in the first period, robbed Ty Bates on a goal mouth scramble and made himself big on an Aaron DeAngelo bid out front. After the Big Blue tied the game in the second period, Bradley flashed a quick left pad to turn away a Grade A bid from Tim Kalinowski.
“You can’t be afraid or shy away from the puck or contact. You’ve gotta stand in there,” said Bradley.
Using the butterfly style preferred by his goaltending role model, Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Bradley took away the bottom of the net from the first minute of play until the 45th and final minute ended.
“I remember thinking he got a little rattled the last time we played them, but not tonight. He was quick and covered everything up so we had no second chances,” Tom Koopman, who scored the only goal for Marblehead when his first period shot went off a Swampscott player’s skate out front, said. “I make my living in front of the net, but he wasn’t giving up any rebounds.”
“The more shots we threw at him,” added Marblehead coach Bobby Jackson, “the better he played.”
Owner of a 12-2 record, 1.53 goals-against average and .918 save percentage, Bradley can no longer be referred to as a puppy.
He’s a full-fledged Big Dog now.
“What more can you ask of a freshman? said junior center Nunzio Morretti. “He’s done it all for us.”
Phil Stacey is the sports editor at The Salem News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 978-338-2650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.